What successful traits then look like now: Shrewdness

In this series, we’re considering the question: how could a mission organization identify potential C-suite leaders 15 years before it needs them? What competencies do you look for, and what do the early version of those competencies look like?

The working theory I’m exploring is that you should look for evidence of early indicators of megacompetencies. I’ve covered resourcefulness and servant heart. The third one I want to propose is:

3. Shrewdness

This one has potential dangers. There are a lot of negative connotations to shrewdness, so stick with me as I unpack it. Certainly, shrewdness can suggest a cunning, conniving, deceitful and devious person. But I believe shrewdness itself is contextual, a competency that in itself is not good or bad, but overlays character. To someone of honesty and purity, shrewdness can add impact to the good they pursue. To someone of rotten character, shrewdness can make their evil formidable.

The critical point for me is that on two occasions, Jesus tells his followers they should be shrewd. Because that point is worth unpacking, I will explore the Biblical view of shrewdness in another post.Okay, with that as a foundation, let’s look at the competencies within shrewdness. I’m essentially breaking down and redeeming negative traits like “cunning,” “conniving,” “crafty,” “calculating” and “conspiring”:

  • Strategery. I’ve adopted the term President George W. Bush coined to noun the verb strategize. There are two primary components to this quality:
    • Foresight: The ability to get up on the bridge and see the horizon in order to set the ship’s direction. This includes elements of abstract thinking, taking the broad view and not being bound to the current strategy.
    • Thinking and planning: The ability to anticipate and plan the steps and stages to get to that horizon, including anticipating and getting around perceived obstacles.

While few leaders may have both versions of strategery, both are useful elements of senior leadership, which mixes vision with implementation. And both can be noted early in young leaders. Look for those who are always asking “why?” and interested in context, the bigger picture. Look for those who are especially resourceful, who can negotiate tradeoffs or break down game theory. Yes, maybe there’s more to gamers than we give them credit for!

  • Street smarts. There’s an old military adage of disputed origins that was best summed up by Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” So, as important as planning is, the question is how you adapt and roll with the punches. Street smarts brings wisdom to ground level and includes the ability to intuitively read an environment, handle situations with common sense and find a way through challenges. For those working in missions or other expatriate settings, such savviness may equate to cross-cultural adeptness. Of course, those with street smarts don’t necessarily play by the well-established game rules, and therefore you can anticipate the friction between this person and a system-protecting manager.
  • Creativity. Creative people find a way to do what needs to be done, which involves considering alternatives, seeing opportunity and taking risks. They may have a comfort with uncertainty and a wide-ranging set of interests. In fact, the ability to think laterally or draw applications from other fields that haven’t been tried in this field before might lead to a reputation for being “offbeat.” The challenge for senior leaders is to notice those who may be on the fringes and invite them into the center in order to harness their creativity for the good of the whole.
  • Timing. Shrewdness comes with an uncanny sense of timing. The right idea at the wrong time is just as likely to fail as the wrong idea itself. Successful entrepreneurs and breakthrough leaders are opportunistic in the best sense of that word. So watch for people who have an intuitive sense of the proper moment for change. But recognize that, early on in a career, such people may lack the courage or support to act on such instincts. That’s where a senior leader may be able to provide a safety net.
  • Influence. The DISC test affirms Influence as a legitimate leadership style. Those who shape the environment and win people over have innate understanding of interpersonal relationships and high emotional intelligence. When skilled, these people can be very persuasive. Patrick Lencioni calls this working genius “galvanizing”: the ability to figure out the wins for others and rally others to act on ideas. While influencers can certainly fall into manipulation and deceit, there are all kinds of positives to this trait. Look for indicators of it, even the unskilled or abused forms of it, and tap those traits for good.

At the beginning of this month I had a chance to watch a bit of track cycling at the velodrome in Japan. I had no idea just how cerebral some of those cycling races are. The sprints are a cat-and-mouse game, sometimes going incredibly slowly and then opening up to a frenetic scramble for the finish line. The omnium, with its many ways to make points or avoid elimination, requires a mix of: strong, pre-planned strategy; keeping track of other competitors; street smarts; agile reactions; opportunistic timing and the cunning use of small openings. Watching the British rider Matthew Walls pull ahead and then hold off the opposition over the four events of the omnium gave me a vivid picture of shrewdness.

When Jesus said his followers should be shrewd in Matthew 10:16, he made an important pairing: “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Manipulative, deceitful individuals are not harmless or innocent. But there is a shrewdness that’s rightly directed toward good, that comes out in good business sense and savvy maneuvering of a Christ-follower in this present age. That edge is something that helps in senior leadership, and the signs of its presence are evident much earlier if you’re alert for them.

So that perhaps brings me to the end of this series, unless I missed something. Now I want your input. What megacompetencies did I miss? What other early indicators should we look for in a future C-suite leader?


Megacompetency Series

What leadership then looks like now: Resourcefulness

So the challenge we’re considering: how could a mission organization identify potential C-suite leaders 15 years before it needs them?

I covered the first part of the challenge in my previous post. The second challenge is to figure out what competencies to look for, and what the early version of those competencies might look like. How do you spot this kind of talent? The mission leader who proposed this challenge had a theory that you look for evidence of megacompetencies. These are broad competencies that are themselves a collection of competencies. He believes that makes it easier to watch for and cultivate early indicators. 

I want to propose three over my next three posts.

1. Resourcefulness

In the book, Topgrading, Brad Smart explores the ruthless leadership theory deployed by Jack Welch at GE: grade your executives each year and cut the bottom performers. I am not a fan of that ultra-competitive approach, and Simon Sinek offers a blistering critique of such finite thinking in The Infinite Game. However, I find Smart’s exploration of the competencies of “A players” to be helpful. Number one on his list:

Resourcefulness refers to your ability to passionately figure things out, like how to surmount barriers… It is a composite of many [competencies]: Intelligence, Analysis Skills, Creativity, Pragmatism, Risk Taking, Initiative, Organization/Planning, Independence, Adaptability, Change Leadership, Energy, Passion, and Tenacity.

So, if you need resourceful leaders in the future, how do you spot these competencies now? They can be seen in the way kids play, in the way students juggle competing responsibilities, in the way young leaders approach challenges. As a matter of fact, resourcefulness can show up very early in life. For instance, consider Rex Davis. While his mother was showering, this 2-year-old grabbed the car keys, left their locked motel room, got into the car and started it up. Unfortunately for him, it was a manual transmission car parked in first gear, so when Rex started the car without stepping on the clutch, the car lurched forward—through the front wall and into the motel room. While police were investigating the accident, this “precocious” 2-year-old found the keys again and climbed back into the car. I suspect Rex Davis will be one to watch for the future.

But here’s the rub: early demonstrations of resourcefulness may look to managers like disobedience; not accepting a firm “no” and making an end run around the bureaucracy. Some of these unskilled expressions will be intensely frustrating to a manager who simply needs the job done. In those cases, it’s up to the senior leader to intervene and create appropriate expressions for those characteristics.


Megacompetency Series

Managing grace

A couple of months ago, missiologist Ed Stetzer spoke at CrossPointe Church Orlando. As he read familiar words from 1 Peter, he freely substituted the word “manager” for “steward.” It’s probably a good shift for us, because we don’t live in a world of stewards. It’s not a context we’re familiar with. Managers we understand. Let’s look at I Peter 4:10 in the NKJV, using Stetzer’s subsitution:

As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good managers of the manifold grace of God.

What Peter is saying here is that when we use our gifts in ministry, we’re managing grace. For starters, he’s referring to the personal management of the gift we’re given, but I believe Peter goes further than the individual interpretation we Westerners are used to. As there is throughout the New Testament, there’s an others-focus in Peter’s admonition. I think it’s fair to apply “managers” in an organizational sense.

Perhaps this is a good time to refresh ourselves on what management is. Drawing from Robert Banks and Bernice Ledbetter, as interpreted by Sherwood Lingenfelter, we might say managing means:

  • to organize
  • to control
  • to maintain focus
  • to allocate resources around

The point of managing is that we don’t own the resources we are responsible for. We are to have a stewardship mindset toward God’s grace. And yet, every day we have the capacity to manage badly. We have plenty of opportunity to hold back the distribution of grace in our office, church and home cultures. As it’s easy to suppress or misdirect our own gifts, we do the same within our teams — sometimes in the exercise of our own gifts. It’s an easy temptation to try to manipulate behavior in others by controlling grace, withholding approval or granting favor unequally. But Peter calls us instead to be proactive, godly, open-handed stewards of that grace.

I remember visiting another mission organization a few years ago and admiring their core value of “a culture of grace.” In Wycliffe’s own journey toward building intentional diversity among our staff, one phrase that has become part of our common lexicon is to “increase our grace capacity.” What does that look like? How do we manage grace in that kind of high-capacity culture?

  • We meet failure with forgiveness and consider it an opportunity to grow.
  • We are careful to consider strengths in building diverse teams, recognizing that God’s gifts are distributed broadly, and God doesn’t just speak to the boss.
  • We honor others by focusing, harmonizing and enhancing the gifts God has given them.
  • We treat others as we want to be treated, forgive others as we want to be forgiven and love others as we want to be loved.

Who wouldn’t want to work in an environment like that?

Spotting redemption

What is the place for people like Barnabas in management? Saul would never have completed his turnaround if Barnabas hadn’t noted the fruit of his change. John Mark would have been forever labeled a quitter if Barnabas hadn’t taken him under his wing, even at the expense of his partnership with Paul. When the Holy Spirit does a work in one of these “wrong people,” do we have people tuned to notice that change and advocate on their behalf? Do we have the courage or the margin to take a risk on someone working to rebuild trust?

About four years ago in my management career, I decided that I’m willing to take on one “project” at any given time. As long as I’m able to fully support the entire team, I’m willing to give special attention to one person who has had some issues identified in previous jobs or who is beginning to discover new leadership abilities. I’ve seen the problems that arise when a manager has more than one of these cases, and the department becomes known for being a collection of wounded souls or the manager becomes known for his soft heart and inability to turn anyone away.

Having said that, I love the story of David and his band of malcontents in 1 Samuel 22. While Saul was king and David an outcast, men who were in trouble, in debt or discontented gravitated to David’s leadership. When he became king, his “mighty men” took office and filled legitimate positions, such as bodyguard and special forces. Fiercely loyal to this man who took a risk on them, they went on to accomplish great feats like conquering Jerusalem and defeating giants alongside him. When David suggested one time that he’d love a drink from the well in his hometown, three of them busted through enemy lines just to get him a cup of water.

The leader who can spot potential and identify the work of the Holy Spirit in someone is a rare gem. Time and time again, God has used people like that to complete His work of redemption, giving the wrong person a second chance.

  • Jethro helped restore Moses after murder
  • Jesus gently forgave Peter and gave him a new mission
  • Ananias and Barnabas took a chance that Saul’s repentance was real
  • Barnabas took John Mark under his wing when Paul gave up on this young quitter

Who is filling that role in your church and in your organization? May God give us as leaders the eyes to see people the way He does and the courage to follow through on a hunch.

When “the wrong person” has to go

Let’s go back to my personal experience with being the wrong person. What hurt the most was when my boss’s boss admitted in my exit interview a feeling two years before that I was the wrong person for the role. I would have much preferred a courageous but tough decision to the frustration of two ill-fitting years.

Firing is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. In Servant Empowered Leadership, Don Page quotes a statement from the Tribunal of the Diocese of Evansville, Indiana that leaders “care too much about people to let them perform at less than their level best.” I’ve blogged before about how managers should love and care for their staff, and it goes way beyond assuring employment. Have you considered that keeping a person in a job might be the least-caring thing you can do? That’s a hard thing to suggest in this economy.

What should set an organization like ours apart from many businesses is not that we don’t let people go; it’s how we let people go. First, we look them in the eye. As Steven Sample says “a man has to shoot his own horse.” He pointed out that president Nixon used to get someone else to tell a staff member he’d been fired. I remember the day I had to let a volunteer go. It was not a good situation, and I could easily have found business to do while security was escorting him to the exit. I chose to be there to show concern for him. Saying it wasn’t easy is an understatement. There was no way to avoid him at church! We had at least one followup conversation as he struggled to understand the reasons for my decision.

If caring for our staff means getting to know their families and situation outside of the office, we should show the same concern for their families and their unique situation as we transition them out of a job. We should show individualization with our approach to each one. We should go above and beyond in providing for their needs. I know there are laws that govern these things, but too often Christians use the laws as an excuse to do the minimum rather than the maximum. I think if a firing is done right, that staff person could one day become our biggest advocate. Seems crazy, but I’ve seen it happen in time.

Finally, remember that letting an underperforming or distracting team member go is a win for the others on your team. Not only do they see that you mean what you say about performance, but they know that your time has now been freed up to better support them. The wrong person takes huge amounts of management time and resources.

As Christian leaders, let’s set the bar high for our staff, and let’s set the bar high for our own performance as managers. Let’s show courage and concern to those who are performing and to those who are not.